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Author Topic: "D&D fantasy" What is it?  (Read 8405 times)
Ron Edwards
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« Reply #15 on: November 14, 2002, 09:59:52 AM »

Hello,

Great thread topic, Jack.

My only side-note at the moment is that I don't think the "legitimacy" issue is worth discussing. That's definitely a preference issue, and even worse, in many cases, a nostalgia-based preference issue, since people tend to approve of or enjoy things that we associate with our pre-adolescent years.

As for the features of D&D fantasy, yes, let's keep going on this. I think a non-judgmental catalogue of its features will be (a) easy to construct and (b) very useful for the future.

Best,
Ron
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ethan_greer
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« Reply #16 on: November 14, 2002, 10:28:48 AM »

I would say that D&D fantasy must almost by definition feature a cast of characters - fighter, magic-user, cleric, thief, etc.  When I think of D&D, I think of the "adventuring party" (TM), consisting of a number of individuals each having a specialized skillset.  I don't think of one character running around doing everything by him/herself.  D&D fantasy seems to emphasize teamwork amongst groups of sometimes widely varied individuals.
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Mike Holmes
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« Reply #17 on: November 14, 2002, 11:20:57 AM »

I'm confused (seems to be the case a lot lately).

Are we asking what form the literature that comes from D&D takes? I'm not particularly interested in this topic, as I don't read any of it.

Or are we asking what D&D Fantasy is in terms or RPGs? Because that's what Ron was talking about, if I'm not mistaken. He wasn't saying that D&D Fantasy literature isn't mainstream, and therefore should not be featured in stores. He's saying that D&D Fantasy RPGs are the culprit.

So why are we talking about what form of literature D&D Fantasy takes?

Not to be too pedantic, but, um, isn't D&D Fantasy that sort of play that's produced by D&D, and games like D&D? Isn't that as useful a way of looking at it as any other attempt to confound it with some literary movement? I mean who is this definition for? We all know exactly what D&D Fantasy is. Even the one poster who nevr played D&D played Rifts. That's more than close enough to know exactly what it's about.

Assuming we do come to some agreement on this. What do we do with such a definition? Use it to tell non-gamers what D&D is like? Isn't that what we're supposed to be avoiding?

Mike
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #18 on: November 14, 2002, 11:27:19 AM »

Hello,

Good point, Mike, but the answer seems to me to be neither only-RPG nor only-books. I understand this thread to be about the content of D&D fantasy. That's not hard to recognize or identify as arising from playing D&D, historically, with the caveat that I am not including anything that ever arose from a D&D game, but a distinctive profile. It's also not hard to recognize in its manifestation in book-published fantasy fiction, beginning with some TSR books and over the decades becoming the default content of designated-as-fantasy publishing.

Now, whether D&D fantasy fiction is any good or not is just as irrelevant to me as whether D&D fantasy is any good or not. I made that clear on the parent thread, as Peter (for instance) understood immediately. That's going to be a personal matter.

But the topic is, what is the content of this term? I have my answers, and I'm collecting and comparing the ones people are presenting here with them.

Best,
Ron
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jrients
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« Reply #19 on: November 14, 2002, 11:47:48 AM »

Now, I know I am going to sound like a simpleton for saying this, but to me Dungeons & Dragons fantasy needs to involve one or more of the following:

1) a dungeon

2) a dragon

I think these two items point towards an emphasis on place (I think about the game's obsession with maps and mapping) and species (what "race" or whatever someone belongs to tells me a great deal I need to know about them).

Oh, yeah, feel free to read my sig.
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Jeff Rients
Walt Freitag
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« Reply #20 on: November 14, 2002, 12:01:19 PM »

Perhaps I'm off the wall here, but the one characteristic I most associate with D&D-influenced "generic fantasy" fiction isn't from D&D, at least not directly. That's the young hero with hidden powers and an inevitable destiny who pretty much gets dragged along through an epic adventure. This boy or girl is practically guaranteed to be fleeing for his or her life at the age of 15, 16, or 17 after the murder of his or her parents or other kindly caretakers. A conveniently met mentor; increasing awareness of unique qualities and (often annoyingly unreliable) powers; gradual accretion of an assortment of odd companions; and a heroic deed of destiny to fulfill.

(Being transported into a fantasy world from the real world can substitute for the parent-murder and exile stage.)

This formula appears to owe more to Dune (by way of Star Wars, of course) than to D&D. But somehow, it jumped species (with the help, perhaps, of LoTR's Fellowship and a dash of the Yellow Brick Road) and by the second or third Shannara novel was firmly incorporated into the DNA of the generic fantasy.

My theory is that the formula is the path of least resistance for converting D&D quest-style adventures with lots of character advancement into a story with an adquate basic dramatic structure. Focus on one character in the party while shifting the others into more appropriate supporting roles; add the miraculous destiny/powers to justify the rapid advancement in effectiveness; add the climactic heroic deed to justify the whole exercise; and add the mentor (already ready in the wings by way of Gandalf and many others) to explain it all to the hero and readers.

Once established, the formula was endlessly manipulated and played with so as to stretch the bounds of generic fantasy without breaking out of them. The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavrial Kay, for example, which is actually way above average, brings five young people from the real world into a generic fantasy world, and each one of them has a different dramatic world-saving destiny. (WARNING: SPOILERS HERE) One, to save the world, becomes a voluntary Odinic sacrifice and hangs on a tree for three days, and is then resurrected with mysterious (read: annoyingly unreliable) godlike powers. Another, not to be outdone, saves the world by willingly becoming a human sacrifice to the earth-mother goddess in the manner of the Adonis cult. One woman assumes the identity and powers of an eternal chain of powerful Seeresses. Another bears the rape-child of the Dark Lord who ultimately saves the world (the world gets saved many times in the trilogy) by killing his father, AND she's also really the current incarantion of Queen Guinevere in a perpetual (until the events of the trilogy end it) repetition of the Arthur-Guinevere-Launcelot triangle. The fifth guy becomes a mighty warrior of the horse-riding plains tribes who hold back the forces of darkness; saves the world by activating a key artifact in a key battle at a key moment, and is also selected by a goddess to get her a demigod son. (NOW how much would you pay?) There are also about a dozen native characters who also have similarly dramatic world-saving destinies. (END SPOILERS)

What else is D&D-ish in Fionavar? Well, there's dwarves, elves, a mish-mash of gods variously derived from Norse, Celtic, and Greek-adopted-Asian pantheons, torrid southern deserts and frigid northern wastes (all within a "world" that, when travel distances are closely observed, turns out to be about the size of Rhode Island), god-powered clerical magic including healing, secular wizards with plain-vanilla magic, magical items and artifacts, and dragons. But this is pretty clearly generic fantasy derived from other earlier generic fantasy, not directly from D&D.

- Walt
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Matt Wilson
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« Reply #21 on: November 14, 2002, 12:03:11 PM »

To what's been said, I'll also add the concept of "start small, grow powerful." The spectrum of power from "1st level" to veteran characters is markedly different from what I see in many other games. I mean, it really seems to be meant for character growth on the epic sense, but only in terms of capability, not personal struggle.

There was an interview with Joss Whedon where he compares the characters of Buffy with those of Friends. The latter, no matter what they've been through, behave more or less like the characters from the pilot episode. Buffy and the gang in season six are different people than they were in season one, across the board. And Whedon makes sure that it happens. D&D is a Friends model. Sure, your character can change, but there's nothing in the game to guide it. Compare that with The Riddle of Steel, where you are required to identify your character's motives, and where those same motives are what makes the character develop.

-Matt
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talysman
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« Reply #22 on: November 14, 2002, 04:05:51 PM »

Quote from: Ian Cooper
Quote from: talysman
D&D fantasy is almost always pseudomedieval.
by this, I mean medieval color layered on a more modern setting.


This came up in a couple of parallel threads on rpg.net. My point was that Tolkien's shire is not pseudo-medieval, but pseudo 18th C (or 17th C according to Steve Dempsey) England, with medieval technologies.


well, that means it is pseudomedieval, except that unlike D&D fantasy, Tolkein is disguising 18th C England as something vaguely medieval, as opposed to disguising the 19th C American frontier with a lot of 20th century anachronisms as something vaguely medieval.

Quote

What is fascinating is how fantasy literature, like gaming, is becoming dominated by this style.


I haven't traced the full origins of this yet, but I definitely see roots in Aspirin's books, as I mentioned. also, I think the "Incompleat Enchanter" plays a role as well.  Walt mentions it in his post, too:

[ edit: oops, by "it" I mean this trend of fantasy literature being dominated by the D&D style. ]

Quote from: Walt

Perhaps I'm off the wall here, but the one characteristic I most associate with D&D-influenced "generic fantasy" fiction isn't from D&D, at least not directly. That's the young hero with hidden powers and an inevitable destiny who pretty much gets dragged along through an epic adventure. This boy or girl is practically guaranteed to be fleeing for his or her life at the age of 15, 16, or 17 after the murder of his or her parents or other kindly caretakers. A conveniently met mentor; increasing awareness of unique qualities and (often annoyingly unreliable) powers; gradual accretion of an assortment of odd companions; and a heroic deed of destiny to fulfill.

(Being transported into a fantasy world from the real world can substitute for the parent-murder and exile stage.)


the "real world to fantasy world" originally comes from Victorian science fiction, through Edgar Rice Burroughs, to de Camp and Pratt's "Incompleat Enchanter" as well as similar stories. ERB and the Victorians don't have the same feel, however, because the hero doesn't start out incompetent and isn't described tongue-in-cheek. I would generalize the pattern Walt is talking about as "ordinary joe caught in extraordinary circumstances".

I think the people to blame all this on are people who are primarily science fiction writers trying to write fantasy when they don't really like the genre. those people had their ideas creep in D&D (the game) along with Tolkein, Leiber, and Vance; this taint then crept into later fantasy writers who find the incompetent hero approach appealing.

there's something somewhat similar happening in science fiction, or at least in SF film and tv: people with an inherent dislike or distrust of science are writing science fiction. this turns out stuff that can be good, but doesn't quite feel right. I would count slasher films as another analog, in the horror genre.[/i]
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John Laviolette
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Seth L. Blumberg
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« Reply #23 on: November 15, 2002, 10:18:58 AM »

Actually, Walt, the Fionavar Tapestry was influenced mainly by Tolkien. Guy Gavriel Kay was one of the scholars who worked with Christopher Tolkien on the publication of the Silmarillion, and the FT (to abbreviate) was his attempt at the same sort of mythopoiesis.

The "ordinary joe in extraordinary circumstances" motif is simply a very literal reading of Campbell's Monomyth.
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the gamer formerly known as Metal Fatigue
greyorm
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« Reply #24 on: November 15, 2002, 11:33:45 AM »

I'm going to commit sacrelige and defend the Shannara series as not-D&D fantasy.

The original trilogy, nor the latest have epic and personal scopes that defy the general mish-mash, complete-a-quest, grow-in-power-then-save-the-world paradigm of D&D.

Not including the Heritage series (which I felt to be subpar and thus I'll forego its mention here), the original trilogy and the latest triology in the series, Isle Witch, are much more on the order of epic fantasy than D&D fantasy.

Yes, Shannara has elves and dwarves and weird races and magic and quests, but there is a difference between these things and the typical "oh, look, more races" idea in D&D.  

Magic in Shannara is a living, soul-eating force...not your typical "kewl powerz" or "mystical hoo-hah" without theme, existing as just a sort of activity, skill or technology to be wielded by the protagonists.

The races of the Shannara world are also detailed as existing for a specific reason: they are the result of a great cataclysm in the past that altered the survivors (with the exception of the elves, who are beings returned from Faerie), not merely funny-sized people who just happen to exist alongside man.

As well, there is none of the usual "gain power, get stuff, use stuff better then destroy huge evil" you see in D&D fantasy.  Mostly, I've found Brooks' writing concentrates on two things: the characters' internal feelings and growth and the relationships between the characters.

Nor is there something else I wanted to bring up: the standard naive hero.  From what I recall of the first trilogy, none of the main characters are driven to questing without really wanting to, or get in over their heads through no fault or desire of their own.

Tangentially, Tolkien is often exemplified as the father of this "naive hero undertakes grand quest with party of friends" idea...but he isn't.  Frodo isn't naive -- he CHOOSES to take the Ring to Mordor, all on his own, and he isn't driven out or abandoned or displaced prior to his undertaking the quest.

Also note that in the Tolkien books, the party is split repeatedly, each pursuing seperate, important goals...the Fellowship (the party) doesn't even last past the first book!

The only ones completing the epic, world-saving quest are Frodo, Sam and Gollum...yet they experience the fewest epic (or adventuresome) events in their journey, compared to the others, who are involved in wars, treasons and betrayals, harrowing escapes and acts of dark and terrible magic.

In fact, I have to say the journey of Frodo and Sam in a typical RPG session would be the most boring and subdued of the events taking place.
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Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
Wild Hunt Studio
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« Reply #25 on: November 15, 2002, 11:59:10 AM »

I'd have to endorse Star Wars as an important source of what D&D-fantasy has become.  I think this is just due to timing, in that they are roughly coincident, and there is a really big overlap of audience.  The Monomyth as expressed in star wars, I think, was an important input for when actual games were built by the play group.  One of my players was niknamed "Luke" precisely becuase his characters appeared to be attempts at the SW hero.  Further, in the UK a few years ago and in Australia more recently, I understand, there has been a sem-tongue-in-cheek argument during the national census to get "Jedi" listed as a religion to tick.  It's only partially frivolous becuase the accompanying argument is that in an essentially secular world SW had about as much effect on personal morality as religion.

Anyway, I think there is or was a lot of use of D&D to reenact Star Wars motifs, and SW also has a wide array of strongly or racially typed characters.  I think the Mos Eisly cantina has often been drawn on for the fantasy bar.  I think this reinforces the monomyth approach, and prompted a lot of its usage.  I don't think that levelling in D&D was intended to do that, but it became a good post-facto rationalisation for many.  This may have contributed to the abandonement of social ranks associated with levels, as was.  Instead, levelling became personal growth expressed in ability.
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Jack Spencer Jr
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« Reply #26 on: November 15, 2002, 12:15:54 PM »

I had been dwelling on this a bit here are some features of D&D fantasy I have come up with. But first, I think it is worth restating that by D&D fantasy we mean the style of fantasy found in many RPGs and related media, not just as found in Dungeons & Dragons as published by TSR or WoTC. Maybe other terms like, say, generic fantasy or gamer fantasy would be less confusing? Anyway, I shall spell out Dungeond & Dragon when I mean Dungeons & Dragons specifically to try to keep confusion down.

* D&D fantasy borrows heavily from all of the various types of fantasy, including things like space fantasy as well as various other genres as the creators find appropriate. Thus it is a mish-mash, unrecognizable and virtually flavorless in an attempt to contain all flavors, like how mixing every color paint together will turn out a dull greyish brown. (This might be a matter of opinion an/or a matter of how expertly or inexpertly they may be mixed)

* D&D fantasy contains physical conflict, like its more literate inspiration and counterparts, but with an added feature: healing. Not that healing is not found in the other, just that in D&D fantasy it is a tactical consideration. D&D fantasy combat is as much about how quickly you can heal any damage your side takes as it is about how skilled or lucky you are in damaging the other side. I am hard-pressed to point out a similar situation in film, television or literature, aside from Ice Pirates.

* Leveling up has been mentioned, but I think it should not be confused in any way with Joseph Campell's Hero with a Thousand Faces as found in myth and other forms of fantasy. Taking Star Wars as an example, sure Luke "levels up" from farm boy to jedi apprentice to jedi knight, but Leia, Han, Chewbacca et al do not. In D&D fantasy the entire group is "growing" like this, and as such the uniqueness and importance of it as a character trait is diminished because everybody is doing it. Leveling up also tends to have more increments. Luke went through only three distinct stages mirroring a rite of passage from childhood to adolescence to adulthood or larva into pupae into butterfly. Dungeons & Dragons, to use this specific example, has many more levels of development, 20, 36 or no upperlimit depending on whi you talk to. Furthermore, Luke was maturing towards the defined goal of becoming a jedi knight. Leveling up has no goal save for constant gain of great competance with each level.

* The ecology of D&D fantasy tends to take two very distinct directions:

In one direction, ecology or any semblance of logic is ignored outright, as in the early Dungeons & Dragons module Keep on the Borderlands which had several races living right next to each other that would otherwise not be if even lip service to logic were applied. Other such things include dragons in lairs with doors much too small for them to get in or out. How do they eat? This just shows that Dungeond & Dragons is a game about monster killing and little else, which is why one constant suppliment for the game are lists of interesting and unusual creatures for you to stick your sword into. (Monster Manual, Monster Manual II, Fiend Folio, etc.)

And on the other hand, you have some consideration actually being applied to the logic of the ecology but without changing or giving up any of the game features as written or as played in the above. This tends to change the setting in unexpected ways, similar to the electric cars and odd cigarettes in the Watchmen comic book. In such worlds you'll have low-level magic users casting light spells on street lamps instead of having oil lamps or things like the mage-ocracy (sp?) as seen in the Dungeons & Dragons movie. I mean let's face it, if you were as powerful as a high-level mage with the intelligence and ego to go with it, wouldn't you try to run thing? (and if not you, wouldn't some of your peers try to?)

This is all I have right now. Comments?
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Jack Spencer Jr
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« Reply #27 on: November 15, 2002, 12:54:36 PM »

I thought I would add a couple actual game title to the discussion to see if anything positive comes out of it:

Dungeon board game from TSR
Talisman board game from Games Workshop
Munchkin card game from Steve Jackson Games
Diablo computer game from Blizzard Entertainment
Doom computer game from id Software
Dungeon Keeper computer game from Electronic Arts
Legend of Zelda video game from Nintendo

These are only a couple games, and the purpose of the thread is not to list everyone's favorite games (for what it's worth, I can't stand about half of this list) but these are game born out of D&D fantasy in one way or another and probably have features in common with it and looking at these (and other) games, it may be easier to recognize these features.
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